For U.N. inspectors, the inquiry is reminiscent of the days when they scoured Iraq’s deserts and industrial parks more than a decade ago in fruitless pursuit of lethal stockpiles of chemical weapons that had long before been destroyed and nuclear facilities that no longer existed.
There are stark differences between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and President Bashar al-Assad’s Syria. For one, the United States, which led the push for invading Iraq, appears reluctant to intervene militarily in the war in Syria. For another, U.N. inspectors may never be permitted to step foot in Syria to examine the sites in question, making it extremely difficult to establish definitively whether chemical weapons were used and by whom.
But officials at U.N. headquarters also see parallels between the Iraq and Syria cases — and potential pitfalls. Among them is a
rift between the United States and Russia and the reactivation of several veterans of the Iraq inspections, including Sellstrom.
As happened with Iraq, any findings on Syria by the U.N. team will fuel an international debate about the wisdom of military intervention. The team’s conclusions also will test the reliability of Western intelligence agencies, particularly in the United States and Britain, whose flawed data served as the basis for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
“The echoes of weapons inspections in Iraq are inescapable,” said Carne Ross, a former British diplomat who managed his government’s Iraq policy at the United Nations from 1997 to 2002.
“We were played, right?” said Patricia Lewis, an expert on biological, chemical and nuclear weapons at London’s Chatham House, suggesting that the intelligence failures in Iraq will cast a shadow over the findings on Syria. “We were badly burned by people coming out of Iraq telling us stuff that wasn’t true, either out of enthusiasm or malice or ego. Nobody outside the West believes the intelligence services of the West anymore.”
President Obama has said repeatedly that any use of chemical weapons by Syria would cross a “red line,” prompting an unspecified response. But Obama, who opposed the Iraq war, has also underscored the limits of intelligence and the need for concrete evidence.
In a letter to key lawmakers last week, the White House said U.S. intelligence agencies believe the Syrian government is likely to have used chemical weapons on a small scale. But the letter said U.S. officials are seeking further proof and endorsed a “comprehensive United Nations investigation that can credibly evaluate the evidence and establish what took place.”